An absorbing new book on Aotea Great Barrier Island invites the reader to pause … and embrace mystery as the plucky souls living full-time on the island do.
Five kilograms of hydrated lime and 1kg of salt in 12 litres of water. England-born Aucklander Tim Higham received a recipe for whitewash when he bought an architect-designed house set among stately trees on Aotea Great Barrier Island 20 years ago. With thatched roofing, a rondavel and cottage, the house also came with stewardship of two horses. But off-the-grid island living has been, for Higham, not at all a Year in Provence schtick of pastis and petanque.
Confession: as a kid I visited this beautiful house at times for afternoon tea — one of my sisters lived there. The thatched roofing smelled warm and mystical. When we jostled too close, the whitewashed walls left an intriguing smear across my shoulder. Two jet-black dobermans presided over the lawns and garden, as terrifying and glamorous as Robin Masters' "lads" in Magnum PI.
Back then, a Bakelite crank phone on a party line reached the outside world. Today, cell phone reception is sketchy, but we can video Zoom on Higham's "rock solid broadband", thanks to his satellite bouncing, via Melanesia, to where I sit in Auckland, in a ceaseless plod of rain. By contrast, glorious sun beams in through an eight-paned window behind Higham's shoulder.
It's easy to romanticise Aotea. Vistas of green, wildlife unseen elsewhere, the scent of mānuka and kānuka, fish for the taking in the mouth of Kaitoke stream or casting from the beach. But as Higham says, it takes constant, inventive grunt work to slow the drift towards entropy. His wife, Julie Anne, proclaimed theirs a "leaky building". Years back the rush roofing bowed out for Colorsteel. And instead of following the recipe for whitewash, Higham opted for weatherproof acrylic. It's hard when your track to the actual road floods and sinks because beneath the surface is peat.
"The kerosene lanterns still hang out on the veranda," says Higham, "but things change. There were big old diesel generators thumping away, now it's LEDs and solar panels with an inverter."
Island life is evoked as utopian: its inhabitants borrow tools from each other or barter a fish for strawberry jam. And yes, Higham does all that. But it goes deeper.
"Being off-grid in a remote valley on a wild island shows you what the real pace of life is like. You are responsible for maintaining everything in a house and all its systems. I didn't come here as a particularly practical person and somehow you've got to learn about the hydrology of water pipes. The biggest gift the water pipe has given me is it makes me go up into the uncharted wilderness to check on it — and it's there that I've encountered incredibly rare wildlife." For example: a niho taniwhā (chevron skink) the length of Higham's arm.
"There's a genre of 'finding my slice of paradise through a property'. But there's a huge amount of unexamined privilege that comes with that, which deeply troubled me." As it turned out, a dominant theme of the book is Higham's relationship with his wife. "For me this property appealed but for Julie Anne this place was the opposite."
As a kid, living on the island, I could see how the island broke couples. Maybe that's easier these days. "It is a pressure cooker for relationships," agrees Higham. "It's harder to stay and suck up what it comes with: the weather, the bush closing in on your house. A property like this I'm never going to get on top of. I'm not going to break it in. So you're forced to give up and that's where the new space comes in."
At one stage, Higham offered his house as a sabbatical rental so guests could stay two or three seasons to fully experience it, but everyone wanted to consume/acquire their sabbatical in the space of a long weekend.
Does the island still need its 30-fold temporary population—the townies with their toys and money? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the tāiko (black petrel) that migrate to nest from Peru deserve a break from the donut-churning jet skiers. Maybe the dying kelp forests need a break from the sediment dumped from Auckland.
So, stay off, Jafas. The island doesn't need you. But wait, you may need the island.
Before he committed to Aotea full-time Higham bounced back and forth with work in Auckland and visits to supermarkets. Off grid, it's a hassle to hunt down a block of chocolate.
"Yesterday I caught a snapper 50cms long," Higham smiles. "That snapper does five meals: fillets are two, the bones make a stock for another, flakes become fish cakes twice."
Better to sit on the beach and take in the Dark Sky Sanctuary established in 2017, where — compared to a city — the stars are 100 times more visible to the naked eye. Better to tune into what the body and heart wants.
"This is the gift of the island — if you're open to it," says Higham. "It'll break you out of that control mode and liberate you from yourself, because the wonder of this world enables all of that artifice to collapse."
The island "works on" everyone living there. The last time I was there, I tell Higham, I recognised every single pōhutukawa hugging the coastline as our treehomes we made as kids.
"The story I'm trying to tell is replicable but it's not simply 'off-grid porn'," he says. "The fact that you might mull on the dilemma opens up the gift of not knowing! That's okay. Stop, pause, breathe, encounter nature, listen … and find. That's the practice."
In Island Notes, Higham has caught it all — the love, loss, otherworldliness, wonder, humility and questioning — into a generous book with much on the bones. There's Higham's story weaving a spell. There's the absolute treat of his son Harry's illustrations, created in 2020's lockdown. Kudos is given to Barrier businesses, ecology movements, mahi to slow down the Hauraki Gulf ferries to save Bryde's whales, the stewardship by local iwi Ngāti Rehua and thought festival Higham has a hand in with themes such as "Death" or "Uncertainty".
"It doesn't matter where I am in the world, this island is in my heart, in my head. We are too busy we can't slow down and that consumption is the core issue leading to loss of the world.
"The only response is to stop. And that's so hard."
I, too, have felt the island in my head from across the world. Reading Higham's book left an indelible smear across my shoulder. Maybe that whitewash recipe has manifested in a different way.
Island Notes, by Tim Higham (The Cuba Press, $38) is available now.
Lizzie Harwood lived on Great Barrier Island as one of seven children helping run the Mulberry Grove Store. Back in NZ after 24 years in Asia and Europe, her novel Polaroid Nights won the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize and features a kick-ass heroine from Aotea.
Island Notes: Finding my place on Aotea Great Barrier Island by Tim Higham (The Cuba Press) is available in all good bookstores.
Watch the Island Notes book launch livestreamed today at 3pm on YouTube. https://youtu.be/VoB6AThU2ow